At Jack's Bar, the memories still pack a powerful punch

November 26, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

With the spirit of Thanksgiving wafting through Pigtown gentle as a morning's first beer and a shot, here are Hunky Sauerhoff and Jack Robinson holding court at Jack's Bar, Scott Street off Washington Boulevard, when naturally the subject gets around to the blessings of the day.

"Still here, ain't we?" says Hunky, who has reached the age of 63 against all odds, meaning not only a life ad-libbed along the cultural fringes but lately including troubles with his heart and his eyes.

"Ain't we?" says Robinson, 75, looking pretty good for a fellow who went through a triple bypass not long ago. He's owned this bTC little place in West Baltimore since 1951, and leans an elbow on the bar as a TV set shows an "I Love Lucy" rerun dating from somewhere in that same Ike and Mamie era. In other words, sometimes in the old places like Jack's, time itself seems to stand still.

"Now, Jack," says Hunky, "he was one of your best all-time Pigtown fighters."

"Aw, I don't know," Robinson says modestly.

Never mind; Hunky should know. He is not only the self-appointed mayor of Pigtown, and founder and President for Life of the Loyal Sons of Pigtown, but has thrown enough of his own punches and, to be honest, caught enough, to have a feel for such things.

"I fought one time in Lancaster, Pa.," says Hunky. "I got hit so hard, I was back on Pratt Street before I knew where I was. Believe me, I know who's a good fighter. This guy's a fighter."

"Nah, I'm just a 75-year old man now," says Robinson, who still has a chest that seems ready to pop the buttons on his shirt.

"Come on," says Hunky, looking around the bar for vocal support. A couple of guys nearby shoot a game of pool, too intent to join the debate. "I seen Jack jump over this bar to break up fights, and then he clears everybody outta the joint and locks the doors and says, 'OK, the two of yuz want to fight? Then nobody walks outta here until we got a winner.' And then Jack takes on the winner of that fight."

Such things still carry weight here, where generations of men defined themselves not only by enduring grinding blue collar jobs but by surviving rough, no-holds-barred street fights.

The names of the tough guys are still spoken with reverence in Pigtown bars. You mention Wild Man Joe O'Connell and somebody inevitably brings up the time he fought a gorilla for $50. You mention Johnny Ditto, and somebody says, what about his brothers Rocco and Angelo? You bring up Bungles Colgan, and somebody counters with Jimmy Saicko or Joe Poodles or the guy whose claim to fame was going to reform school with the great Jake LaMotta.

"You had to be tough," says Hunky. "It was a blessing just to survive."

"Now, me," says Robinson, "I was born and raised in a barroom. Raised up around fighting. Guys would fight just to prove a point. Take a guy like Harry Smith, who used to go around to different saloons just looking for a fight. Or Sylvester Toomey. He had 18 bar fights and knocked out every one. One guy, it took 15 minutes to wake him. I learned from that. I wasn't afraid of anybody. If a guy said he could beat me, he had to prove it."

"Yeah, but you were a gentleman," says Hunky.

"Well," says Robinson, "I never went looking."

"You could still fight today," says Hunky.

Robinson shrugs. "I'm 75," he says softly. "How much could I fight today?"

Does all this fight talk count for anything? Well, yeah. The streets are different today. Once, Jack Robinson could lock the barroom doors and turn two guys loose, and when it was over with the fists, it was over.

"We'd fight and then be friends," Robinson says. "Today, you don't know who's packing guns and knives."

In his heyday, the fights came from blowing off steam. He sponsored amateur teams, which played ball and then convened at the bar afterward.

"Sometimes," he says, "guys came into the bar and fought over games they'd had the week before. They needed to get it out of their system. It didn't mean nothing, it was just fighting."

"Aw, Jack, he could beat any of 'em," Hunky Sauerhoff says now. "He could still beat 'em, I'm telling you."

Jack Robinson shakes his head. He's 75 now. Like Hunky, he's been through some heart troubles. But it's nice, even now, to hear the words. Such things stand for something in the places like Pigtown, which has always had its rough streets. Survival was never guaranteed. To reach Robinson's age, to reach Hunky's, now there's some cause for thanksgiving.

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